The recent rainfall has inundated the Brahmaputra valley, leaving a death count of over 50. The Brahmaputra is flowing above the danger level, and in total, over 21 lakh people are affected. Dhemaji and Barpeta districts are among the worst affected districts, and 45,000 hectares of agricultural land is damaged. Yet, when we talk about floods in Assam, the discourse is limited to the economical or ecological cost of it. And it is rightfully so, for floods cost an economic damage of around ₹128 crores on average annually. Crops are damaged, houses are swept away, and public utilities are destroyed each year in the monsoons.
In the Kaziranga National Park, the flood has claimed 39 animals’ lives now. But this is not a singular phenomenon; irratic flood pattern in the park forces animals to take shelter in the highlands within close proximity of the humans where they are more prone to hunting and man-animal conflict. The vulnerable Indian Rhinoceros is particularly in the critical zone as 70% of its numbers occur in Kaziranga, and a natural calamity such as flood further puts its status in peril. Flood had submerged 90% of the park last year, and the figures stand at 95% this year. The park also lost 12 rhinos in 2019, along with one elephant and 100 hog deers. The ecological loss of floods in Assam is surely huge. After poaching, it is flood that claims the single-most rhino lives.
But apart from all the economic and ecological loss, there is a cultural loss too. At the centre of Assam and the Brahmaputra, lies Majuli, a riverine island which covered an area of 880 square kilometres at the beginning of the 20th century and is now reduced to some odd 324 square kilometres today. The cultural cost of flood in Assam is immense. In Majuli is the seat of Assamese Neo-Vaishnavite culture, housing 65 sattras (monastery), and its mere existence is central to the Assamese cultural psyche today. Majuli, formed by the Brahmaputra to the south and Kherkutia Xuti to the north, has lost 33% of its landmass in the latter half of the 20th century and surveys predict that in 15-20 years the island will cease to be.
In 2017, floods triggered by the breaching of the Dhonarighat embankments in Majuli created for the Ranganadi Hydropower Project in Arunachal Pradesh upstream led to massive erosion. Now, erosion affects people and erosion-affected families have to be resettled. They take shelter in government land for which they are not eligible under the flood compensation scheme as erosion has not yet been accepted as a calamity eligible for compensation under National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF). This put further strains on land-related conflict, which has taken a prominent position in the political discourse, cue the immigrants issue in Assam.
Majuli is the cultural nerve-centre of Assam and, as mentioned before, houses many sattras. A sattra is in itself a milieu of theatre, dance, and songs of the Assamese neo-Vaishnavite traditions. These are intangible artforms preserved in the sattras, which would have been otherwise lost. Sattras are also one of the few places in India where the ‘guru-disciple’ tradition is followed. Therefore, Majuli is continuing is a living cultural tradition.
With a population of 1,60,000 people, Majuli is also a district formed back in 2016. But changes are yet to come, and while we wait, the flood gnaws slowly and steadily on Majuli’s fringes. Where in the discussion about losses caused by floods in Assam, the cultural ones may take a backseat but are nevertheless important.